This Was Not Africa's Olympics: African Male Athletes Came to the Olympic Games in Athens and Stamped Their Authority on the Track with Four Gold Medals and a Cluster of Silver and Bronze-But Where Were the Ladies? Clayton Goodwin Traces Africa's Disappointment at the Just-Ended Olympics in Athens
Goodwin, Clayton, New African
There was an African one-two-three shut-out in the men's 3,000m steeplechase and 5,000m, and double-champion Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco) proved himself to be the "champion of champions". Yet there were disappointments among the triumphs--especially in the marathons: it was that sort of competition.
In the men's 800m and the women's 10,000m, at least, African athletes battled each other to the line only for another competitor to pass them in the final strides.
While performances on the track came generally up to expectation, only two medals were won by the Continental Africans in the field events--gold for triple-jumper Francoise Mbango Etone (Cameroon) and silver for high-jumper Hestrie Cloete (South Africa).
Mbango's success was the sweetest. Two years ago, I was among the tens of thousands moist-eyed spectators at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester (UK) who willed her to lose--we really willed her rival, the local favourite Ashia Hansen, to win, but it was much the same thing and I have suffered a pang of conscience ever since.
Now with Ashia absent in Athens, that guilt can be assuaged. Here once more, Francoise faced a local favourite in Devetzi Hrysopiyi of Greece, urged on by a throng of partisan voices, and this time the Cameroonian soared above the circumstances to win with 15.30m to Hrysopiyi's 15.25m.
On the final full day of the Games, Hestrie Cloete jumped 2.02m to win gold in the women's long jump.
Meseret Defar (Ethiopia) was the only other African woman to win gold in an intriguing contest for the 5,000m with her compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba and Isabella Ochichi (Kenya) in which all took the lead in turn. Defar, however, wore down the opposition to finish in 14min 45.65sec, with Ochichi and Dibaba in 14min 48.19sec and 14min 51.83 sec respectively.
It was early in the schedule and promised well for the projected confrontations in the days ahead. Who could have foreseen then that no other Continental African woman would take centre place on the podium?
Several came close to it, though. In the marathon, Catherine Ndereba (Kenya), who seemed to have dropped out of contention some way from the finish, came back strongly to cut away at the advantage of the runaway leader, Mizuki Noguchi of Japan. She ran out of time and distance--finishing second in 2hrs 26.32min to Noguchi's 2hrs 26.20min. Elfenesh Alemu (Ethiopia) raced in and out of the medal positions before finishing fourth in 2hrs 28.15min. Elsewhere, the late surge of Hasna Benhassi (Morocco) brought her within a vest's width of snatching the 800m crown from Britain's new golden girl, Kelly Holmes. Benhassi finished in 1 min 56.43sec to Holmes 1 min 56.38sec. The once invincible Maria Mutola (Mozambique), for whom these Olympic Games had indeed come a year too late, closed out of the medals in fourth place in 1 min 56.51sec.
Perhaps the most frustrating finish was in the 10,000m. The Ethiopians appeared to have victory "sewn up" as Werknesh Kidane who eventually placed fourth in 30min 28.30sec, and fifth-placed Lornah Kiplagat (the Kenyan who runs for The Netherlands,) set a cracking pace. But they were soon overtaken by the fast-running Ejegayehu Dibaba (who eventually came second in 30min 24.98sec) and the third-placed Derartu Tulu, the former twice Olympic laureate (who was added to the team after being omitted initially), only to be overtaken on the line by China's Huina Xing in 30min 24.36sec.
Now, enter El Guerrouj, the master "miler" who had failed in the last two Olympic Games in Atlanta and Sydney in which he had been expected to win. Some commentators were concerned prematurely that he lacked "what it takes when it matters most". Bernard Lagat (Kenya) seemed ready to take over the honours, and he almost did so. In a thrilling duel, El Guerrouj held on to win in 3min 34. …